The origins of the Tonfa are hard to pin down. There is some evidence that it may have originated in China, Indonesia, or other locations in Southeast Asia. Today it is most commonly associated with Okinawa and is predominantly considered to be an Okinawa weapon.
The Tonfa Weapon
It is thought that perhaps the Tonfa originated from crutches, though this is mere speculation. A Tonfa is composed of two separate pieces. The body of the Tonfa (the Monouchi) is made of a single piece of hardwood or metal that is generally round, rectangular, square, or octagonal in shape – though it may have different shapes at different locations along its length. The second piece is the Tsuka. It is usually round and is attached to the Monouchi at a 90° angle approximately ¼ of the way from one end (Zen Atama) of the Monouchi.
The Tsuka typically is mounted such that it goes completely or nearly completely through the Monouchi. Various mechanisms are used to keep the Tsuka attached to the Monouchi so it does not come apart during use. Most commonly a Hoshi (rivet or peg) is inserted through both the Monouchi and the Tsuka so that the Tsuka cannot pull out. At other times wedges or brads are used to ensure the Tsuka is maintained in the Monouchi. This is obviously a key element in the construction of the weapon and must result in a sound joint that cannot come undone during repeated use or from extended wear.
The Tsuka of a Tonfa is usually round in its cross-section but may not necessarily be of uniform diameter. It is composed of two primary parts. The head (Tsuka Gashira) and the grip (Nigiri). The Tsuka Gashira is used as both a striking surface and as a buffer to keep the hand from sliding off of the weapon. The Tsuka is also often used as a grabbing, twisting, pushing, or pulling surface.
There are three surfaces of the Monouchi that warrant mention. The Shomen is the top surface that rests against your forearm when you hold the weapon in its normal position. On the opposite side of the Monouchi is the Soko or bottom surface. The flanks or sides of the weapon are called the Sokumen. These three surfaces of the Monouchi are often used as striking or blocking surfaces.
One of the common uses of the weapon is to effectively block a strike. This is often done by grasping the Tsuka in the palm of your hand such that your thumb is near the Tsuka Gashira. The Shomen rests against your forearm until the opposite end (Ushiro Atama) protrudes just past your elbow. The Tonfa is properly sized when the Ushiro Atama extends approximately one to two inches beyond your elbow when the Tonfa is held in this manner.
The width of the palm, measured across the pads of your finger with your fingers spread wide, is a key measurement when sizing a Tonfa. This measurement is the ideal length of the Nigiri and is also the usual distance from the Tsuka to the Zen Atama.
For practice purposes, you may utilize either hardwood or metal Tonfa. For contact work, you may only use a hardwood Tonfa. If you wish to purchase a Tonfa then we recommend you buy one constructed of a weapon-grade hardwood as your first Tonfa weapon. You may elect to purchase a different type of weapon later but to get started a hardwood Tonfa is the best choice.
The Tonfa is normally held in your palms by grasping the Tsuka such that your thumb is pointing in the direction of the Tsuka Gashira. We normally position the weapon initially such that the Zen Atama points directly toward angle 1 with our arm extended forward such that our forearm is parallel to the floor. This might be considered to be the “home position.” There are other ways to hold the weapon, but this method of holding it provides you with the largest set of possible movements.
You may see videos where someone is flipping the weapon over in their hands and then grasping it in some other location. We limit and control how we do such maneuvers. The reason should be clear from the videos. Usually, the person will drop the weapon at least one time during these flipping demonstrations. Do you want to take the chance of dropping possibly your only means of defense simply because you wanted to attempt such a maneuver? We hold the weapon in one primary manner and learn to be extremely effective with the weapon held in that posture. We do utilize other grasping methods, but we try to limit the number of times we are forced to change our grip.
With the weapon held as described it is very easy to block in an inward, downward, outward, and upward direction. Nothing unique or special needs to be done to block at any of these locations. If you have a weapon in each hand (quite common) then you can also block with Judan Juji Uke, Gedan Juji Uke, Chudan Morote Uke, or Gedan Morote Uke with great ease. It is also easy to block on one side of the body or the other with nearly a full-length body block. In this way, it is quite possible to block from your head down to roughly the location of your knee.
Striking can be done using a variety of different surfaces on the weapon. The most elementary is simply pushing either end of the weapon forward as a Tsuki. Such a strike could be delivered at nearly any level or part of the body. Another straight forward strike is to use your hand like you would deliver a Tettsui Uchi or Tate Tettsui Uchi. Generally, the Soko part of the weapon is used to make contact with the target. Another common strike is to swing the weapon out, forward, and then across.
This is similar to the way a Mikazuki Geri might be delivered. As a result, we refer to this as a Mikazuki Uchi. The wrist is used to augment the forces of the strike, which normally results in the weapon spinning forward in the palm of the hand, further intensifying the forces in the strike. This strike can be delivered along a forward or reverse path (Ura Mikazuki Uchi) and are often both done in combination. You will also find it practical to use the same spinning action in a vertical orientation. These are called Age Mikazuki Uchi when the Ushiro Atama is sweeping upward, and Otoshi Mikazuki Uchi when the Ushiro Atama is sweeping downward.
The weapon is also used extensively to control, manipulate, and throw an adversary. Many of the methods you have learned that use your hands, the Jo, Bo, and Hanbo can be readily adapted for use with the Tonfa. This is one scenario in which the weapon might be used effectively using a different grasping position, though care must be used to ensure you never lose control of the weapon. Flipping or otherwise releasing your grip on the weapon is still not considered a wise course of action.